Whether you're seeking a diagnosis for a lung condition or you've finally figured out why you're struggling to breathe, a pulmonologist is a type of doctor you may be referred to see. But what do they do? Who do they treat? How can they help you?

Here's what you need to know about pulmonologists.

What is a pulmonologist?

A pulmonologist is a physician who specializes in the respiratory system. From the windpipe to the lungs, if your complaint involves the lungs or any part of the respiratory system, a pulmonologist is the doc you want to solve the problem.

Pulmonology is a medical field of study within internal medicine. These doctors go through the same training as an internist. They receive their degree, complete an internal medicine residency, then several years as a fellow focused primarily on pulmonology and often includes critical care and sleep medicine. After that, they have to take and pass specialty exams, and only then are they able to take patients as a Board-Certified pulmonologist.

While the respiratory system is a specialty in itself, pulmonologists can specialize even further. Some of these doctors focus on certain diseases, like asthma, pulmonary fibrosis and COPD, while others treat unique demographics, like pediatric patients or geriatric patients.

Because many lung and heart conditions present similar symptoms, pulmonologists often work with cardiologists while diagnosing patients. You'll also see them frequently in hospital settings. Patients that need life support or manual ventilation in order to breathe will have a pulmonologist overseeing that element of their care.

How a pulmonologist can help you

A pulmonologist works with patients facing serious or chronic breathing problems. While primary care doctors can handle mild or short-term conditions, such as those caused by a cold or respiratory infection, you'll need to see a pulmonologist to diagnose, treat and manage more complex illnesses that primarily affect the lungs.

If you're struggling with a respiratory disease, accurate diagnosis is the first step. A pulmonologist uses procedures such as spirometry, bloodwork, chest X-rays, CT scans, bronchoscopies and sleep studies to diagnose chronic lung disease. Your pulmonologist may ask you to repeat these tests even if you have already completed them to confirm the results.

Once you have a diagnosis, a pulmonologist will create a treatment plan. If you require surgery, that will likely be done by a surgeon who specializes in the heart and lungs. Beyond that, a pulmonologist will use medications, therapies and pulmonary rehabilitation to help you return to wellness.

Because lung diseases are often debilitating and require long-term care, pulmonologists are well-versed in working with you and your family and healthcare team. They should be able to adapt treatment plans to work with your situation and should be able to coordinate your care with other important members of the team. Examples include respiratory therapists, asthma educators, pulmonary rehab programs and local support groups such as the American Lung Association's Better Breathers Clubs. This can help you and your loved ones understand your condition and your path forward.

When should you see a pulmonologist?

A simple cough associated with allergies or a cold shouldn't send you looking for a pulmonary specialist. Urgent care or your primary care doctor should be your first stop, and then on to an allergist or ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.

You should see a pulmonologist if that cough persists for more than 3 weeks, or if it becomes severe. This should be done in consultation with your primary care doctor.
When else should you see a pulmonologist? The below symptoms can be related to a lung condition and a pulmonary specialist may be helpful:

  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
  • Difficulty breathing, especially during exercise
  • Fatigue
  • Wheezing
  • Recurring or chronic bronchitis or colds that impact your respiratory system
  • Asthma that isn't well-controlled, or has unidentified triggers

How to find a pulmonologist

If you're struggling with any of the symptoms above, or you're not satisfied with the results or answers you are getting from a general practice doctor, it's time to find a pulmonologist. There are several ways to find a new respiratory specialist. Here are some options:

#1. Ask your primary care doctor for a referral

Many doctors cultivate contacts among local specialists so that they can refer their patients to doctors whose work they know and trust. If you're not getting close to a diagnosis, ask your primary care provider if they can recommend a pulmonologist.

Your health insurance company might require you to get a referral to a specialist. Check the fine print on your policy to see if this is true for your health insurance plan.

#2. Look through your health insurance company's provider database

If you're looking for a second opinion, this is probably the route you want to take. Every health insurance company offers an online database of all its contracted in-network doctors. You should be able to find it by accessing your health insurance member site. Search for a pulmonologist or respiratory specialist.

If you have a few options to choose from, conduct a Google search on each one. Read reviews, look for any specialties they focus on and see if they're taking new patients. Then, it's time to make an appointment.

With lung complaints—especially if you're having trouble breathing—you want to see a doctor as quickly as you can because these problems can quickly worsen. If one doctor can't see you soon, call another. If you're still having trouble booking an appointment, ask your primary care doctor's office to make the call for you. Some doctors set aside emergency slots for situations like this.

For lung conditions, there's no type of doctor better than a pulmonologist. While it can still take time to receive a diagnosis—and longer still for treatments to take effect—trust in these highly trained professionals to make your well-being their highest priority.

Have a question? Contact the Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA.

Brenda Kimble is a writer and caregiver based in Austin, TX. In her spare time, she enjoys blogging to support local causes and connecting with others in her field. Outside of her work, Brenda loves doing yoga, completing new DIY projects around her home, as well as spending time with her husband and three children. 

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